BOSQUE COUNTY — Cattle herds across Central Texas are becoming thinner, as the food and water needed to sustain them are drying up.
"This has been probably the worst drought that I've ever lived through," said Robert Payne, a farmer and rancher in Bosque County.
Payne has been tending his fields for decades. He's seen some rough weather in his time, but nothing has hit as hard as this year's drought. He says it's even worse than the drought of 2011.
That year, fertilizer was about $350 a ton, and there was just enough rain in the spring for Payne to salvage a bit of wheat. This year, all of the wheat failed, and to make matters worse, fertilizer has been running over $1000 a ton.
"I lost the wheat, I lost the milo, the corn made twenty bushel," said Payne.
The severe absence of rain not only stunted the growth of his crops but it's turned his pastures into shriveled, brown straws. Payne likened it to stepping on Corn Flakes.
Between the dead fields and the shortage of hay, there simply isn't enough food for his cattle. Water has been in poor supply as well. A drinking basin on his farm lies completely empty, something that hasn't happened since 1980.
Countless other ranchers are facing these problems. For many, the only solution is to send some cows to auction.
"Some of the farmers I know of actually sold completely out," said Payne. "I have liquidated a third of them, and I'm going to hang on until my hay runs out."
It's a harsh reminder of how drought can impact a rancher's revenue for years to come. Payne will take a major financial hit this year due to the lack of crops and the falling herd numbers, and those losses will carry over into next year. It's a plight being felt by farmers all across the region.
"Drought is a multi-year disaster for many ranchers because you're forced to sell off some animals this year, so you don't have those cows next year having a calf to sell," said David Anderson, a professor and extension economist.
Perhaps the only ones who are finding the bright side are the meat packers. They've had no trouble finding cattle at the auction block.
"Auction markets have a lot of business going on because there's so many animals going through," Anderson said. "Although they know, we may run more animals through our auction this year, but it may be fewer next year."
With the high number of cattle headed to the butcher, there should be plenty of beef on the market this year. Still, that's little consolation for the ranchers. They're just hoping to get some good rain sooner rather than later.
"If it doesn't rain, and I go through all my hay, then I won't have any herd," said Payne.
Payne would like to buy more hay, but doing so right now is almost impossible.
Hay prices have shot up, and there are waiting lists to purchase any at the local feed stores. If he uses up the last of his hay, Payne says he'll have to sell off the 60 head of cattle that remain.
Meaningful rainfall will have to come in August to save his herd. Even if hay were to begin growing in September, the product would be useless, because the growing season would end before the hay would be ready.